‘Baby Panic’? Women Over 35 May Be Quite Fertile After All

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

I walked into the newsroom today startled to see the TV screen tuned to ABC’s Good Morning America streaming (or screaming?) “Baby Panic: How long can you wait to have a baby?” across the bottom of the screen.

I wondered why this discussion was suddenly news again.

I hate the “baby panic” story. I got pregnant easily for the first time at 39. Right on my block, I can quickly count a number of women who also had their first child after 35. Many of us also had children in our 40s. Most of us did this without fertility treatments. I always thought baby panic was a way to get women to “lean out” of their careers.

So it was with some trepidation that I discovered The Atlantic article that appears to be driving this new media frenzy. But this article is different. It debunks the conventional wisdom about women over 35 facing a steep and rapid decline in fertility.

In her piece, Jean Twenge weaves in her personal story: divorced at 30, longing for children, worrying she’d never have them.

Then she dives into the data. For example, where does the statistic showing that one-third of women 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying come from?

French birth records from 1670 to 1830.

“In other words,” Twenge writes, “millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics or fertility treatment.”

Back in 2007 I was thinking about statistics in a different way at the annual Health Journalism conference in Los Angeles. At a session on “Innovations in Reproductive Health,” I listened as Dr. Richard Paulsen, director of USC Fertility, discussed the decline in fertility that happens to women over 35. I queried him after his talk, pointing out my own purely anecdotal observations in my neighborhood. He confirmed that we “don’t know the denominator.” In other words, women who seek fertility treatments are by definition having trouble getting pregnant. There wasn’t a lot of data looking at the population of women over 35, trying to get pregnant and succeeding.

But that’s changing, as Twenge reports. While 21st century data on modern women who want to get pregnant are still “sparse,” she cited these:

  • Obstetrics & Gynecology: of couples having sex twice a week, 82 percent of 35-to-39 year old women conceive within a year vs. 86 percent of 27-to-34 year olds
  • Fertility and Sterility: of couples having sex during their fertile times, 78 percent of 35-to-40 year olds got pregnant within a year vs. 84 percent of 20-to-34 year olds

Again, these studies are limited, but they are starting to get at a better “denominator” that Dr. Paulsen and I discussed several years ago. There is a decline, but in this limited data set if appears to be much more gradual than has been widely reported. In addition, that decline “is still of relatively limited use to individuals, given the large range of fertility found in healthy women,” Allen Wilcox of the NIH tells Twenge.

In closing her piece, Twenge says the data, though imperfect, lead her to two conclusions:

No. 1: fertility declines with age. No. 2, and much more relevant: the vast majority of women in their late 30s will be able to get pregnant on their own.

Learn more:

How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby? (The Atlantic)

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  • Cath

    I just read this article in my copy of The Atlantic and it has made my year. Even though my maternal grandmother had babies into her 40s and all my aunts are extremely fertile, there’s the perception that I’ve wasted my life on my career and am now facing a childless future at age 34. The big 3-5 is coming up and my boyfriend and I have plans. However it is comforting to know that we will be fine when we decide to start a family.

    • sftitan

      Plans to get married?

  • Frieda Taylor

    Thanks for underscoring the need to understand what statistics are capturing. The failure to do so leads to fearmongering and doomsday predictions in so many areas.

  • SusieKerinster

    My mother had me at 45, and I have no health problems or mental defects, and she used no fertility treatments. The only reason I personally would recommend having children at a younger age than 40-45 is because by the time they are an adult, you are either retiring, or almost retiring, and many people experience health problems as they get older. What if you need help getting around, or you can no longer afford to work and you have hardly any retirement funds, or you are in and out of hospitals all the time? Its a lot of pressure to put on your children. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen to a lot of people all the time anyway, all I’m saying is that you are more likely to have more problems, the older you get, and its not something I think a lot of young adults (18-21) are equipped to handle.

  • karenkersting

    I’m conducting my psychology dissertation research on worry about future fertility among women 25 to 40 years, and launched my survey today. https://www.facebook.com/FutureFertilitySurvey The survey deals with a lot of the issues brought up in this Atlantic article. Please check it out!